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Sunday, August 17, 2008

Beijing 2008: Women's marathon splits

Split times, and pacing analysis from the Beijing Women's Marathon

Constantina Tomescu-Dita has won the Beijing Olympic Marathon. In a real race of attrition, that saw many of the pre-race favourites drop out or off the pace BEFORE HALFWAY, it was the Romanian who had the ability on the day. She hit the front at 20km, pushed the pace on, and gradually grew a lead that hit 70 seconds with only 7km to go. Despite a fast finish from the chase group, Dita held on to claim Romania's first marathon gold. It was a race of attrition, many of the favourites having poor days. Paula Radcliffe finished, running a tough race despite insufficient training thanks to her injury problems leading in. Below is our pacing analysis of the race.

How the race unfolded: Split times, paces, and time analysis

Below is a graph of the pacing strategy of the race, with some notes for a "snapshot" overview of how the race unfolded. Below that is a table showing the times at each 5km interval, as well as the pace for that interval and the projected finish time.

Race of attrition - the favourites struggle early

You can see how the race began incredibly slowly, with a projected time in the 2:30's after the first 10km. Not surprisingly, an enormous group of women formed at the front. Over the course of the next 10km (from 10 to 20km), the group thinned somewhat as the pace picked up into the low 3:30's per kilometer.

But perhaps the biggest surprise was the progressive (and early) disappearance of some of the pre-race favourites. First, after only 5km, Deena Kastor pulled out. She won bronze in Athens, and was a dark-horse for a medal in Beijing, but she pulled off at 5km, and clutched her foot. It was not immediately obvious what the problem was, but she was clearly in pain, trying to run, but managing only 3 or 4 steps at a time before being reduced to a limp.

Next to go was Reiko Tosa of Japan. At about the 16km mark, she fell off the back, and was, incredibly, soon joined by Catherine Ndereba of Kenya, who was one of our picks for a medal. Ndereba recovered a little, and spent the next 10km hanging onto the back of the lead group. But Tosa never did, and the images of her crying and struggling along between about 20 and 30 km were among the more dramatic of the race.

Halfway - the race ignites

Having reached the halfway mark in 75:11 (projecting a 2:30), it was Constantina Dita of Romania who went to the front (or Constantina Tomescu, depending on which surname you use...). She ran the next two kilometers in about 3:20 each, and opened up a lead of around 30 seconds on the group, which was still large (more than 20 runners). The graph above shows why that gap was opened - she covered the 5km in 16:49, a pace of 3:22 per kilometer.

Then it was Paula Radcliffe to the front. She took up the mantle of "chaser" and went to the front of the group. About 3 km earlier, she'd pulled over to the side of the road for a bathroom break, reminiscent of the famous "pit-stop" in the London a few years ago. Encouragingly, she closed the gap quickly, and then took the lead and the chase of Tomescu-Dita began.

Between 25 and 30 km, the lead grew, however, and at 30km, it was up to 57 seconds. There are two reasons why the lead grew. First, she ran the interval at 3:20/km, which is a pretty impressive pace. But more than this, it was the lack of co-ordination of the chase that was responsible, because no one was really willing to do the work at the front. The big names were all there, but in a line, no one taking the responsibility or the risk to take the lead on.

30 km onwards - the race blows apart

Eventually, at about 29km, Zhou Chunxiu of China went to the front. At this stage, Radcliffe looked in trouble, right at the back of a group of about 10 athletes that had formed. Wami was gone too, and so was Birhane Adere, and the pace was now really starting to do some damage. Miraculously, however, Catherine Ndereba was there again, in touch. She'd been hanging off the back for the last 15km, which is a bizarre way to run, but with 12 km to go, she was right back in contention.

Tactically, you have to wonder about Ndereba
...she has lost gold before by allowing breaks off the front, and today, sitting 15m behind the lead pack, she was in no position to respond to Dita's move. Not that she would have, probably, but still, it seems strange that she'd allow the race to sort itself out over 30km before putting her stake in...

For Radcliffe though, it was not to be, her lack of training the build-up eventually catching up with her. Shortly after 30km, the gap was created, and Radcliffe's challenge was over, sadly for her. The marathon is simply just not forgiving enough to allow an anti-gravity treadmill and cross-training to fully take the place of big volume running. It was a brave effort, though, a great run from a great runner.

Meanwhile, the race was on. Tomescu-Dita was working incredibly hard at the front, a noticeable difference in pace between her and the chasers. At 35km, the lead had grown to 1:10, thanks to Dita's great pace at the front (3:23/km for the 5km interval). That lead, with only 7km to go, seemed insurmountable.

Gold medal secured - a 22km time-trial seals the win

It was at this stage that I felt the gold medal was secure - the chase group was still showing no organization. And most telling, Zhou Chunxiu was not pushing on - if these athletes had any strength or any speed left, they'd have made a decisive move by now. This would be particularly true for the two Chinese women in front of their home crowd, who would surely have thrown in a challenge with only 7km to go. Their failure, even to "sacrifice" one athlete to bring Dita back suggested that it was her day.

And so it proved to be. Dita duly wrapped up the final 7km - she suffered a great deal in the process, but she held onto her lead, finishing in a time of 2:26:44:, with a lead of only 22 seconds. Second was grabbed by Catherine Ndereba and the bronze went to Zhou Chunxiu in what was a great race over the final lap inside the Bird Nest stadium - the crowd went wild, until the final 10m when Ndereba finally broke Zhou to win silver.

But this was Dita's day. Put simply, Dita won because she time-trialled the final 22 km at 3:23/km and everyone else could only manage a pace of 3:24/km. Dita's second half was run in 71:33, a fabulous performance, that could not be matched by any other runner on the day. Of course, it's never as simple as that, but this boiled down to a great performance from Dita, who thoroughly deserves the Olympic gold.

Opinions to follow

That's a wrap on the more technical/"scientific" analysis of the race - sorry for the heavy numbers! As you can imagine, there is a lot more to be said, however, and we'll be back with a bit more of an "opinion" piece a little later on (if time allows it - the Olympics are just too congested!).

So join us later for some opinion and insight!


P.S. A late addition to the post - just some info on Dita-Tomescu, who many may never have heard of. She was certainly an outside shot for a medal (never mind the win), but she does have some marathon and championship credentials. A world half marathon champion, along with a third in London and the 2005 World Champs in Helsinki, she does have some pedigree. Her biggest achievement until today was victory in the Chicago Marathon in 2004, in a PB of 2:21:30, which makes her one of the fastest women ever. People's suspicions will no doubt be aroused, such is the doping climate of world sport these days, and only time will tell. But she's not an athlete who emerged from nowhere...


Anonymous said...

My antennae are up over this one.


Anonymous said...

Wow this Olympics has surely turned out to be a showcase of note with some serious debate throughout concerning performances, so much for bad conditions.Some comments on websites quite interesting ie Michael Phelps "greatest Olympian ever""Most decorated Olympian ever"etc etc.Bottom line,contact/impact sports must still be the hardest to endure and recover from.Phelps brilliant at his game yes and respect for that he deserves but to be very careful in labelling him.Usain Bolt, WoW and still more to come.Pavro Nurmi,Emil Zatopek now there are Olympians worth discussing.Nurmi,5 Golds/5 Events 1500/5000 in World records with less than 30 minutes rest between the 2.Todays technology,massage,coaches,recovery methods etc etc that makes them extra special.So roll on Bejing so much more to come.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

HI Aussie

I hear you. I'd probably be sceptical regardless of who won, my antennae are always up...

However, I'll give her the benefit for now, because while she was an outside shot coming in, she does have some pretty good credentials in the past - she's won Chicago, and come 3rd in London and World Champs before.

So if my suspicions are raised, it's not because this is a flash in the pan. She also has a world half-marathon title to her credit, so the pace in the second half is not completely out of the question.

But time will tell...

Anonymous said...

Good analysis!
But data should be more precise.
The interval between 25-30km should be 16:48, not 16:38 so that the pace/km would be 3:22, not 3:20 or so. Please refer it to the official olympic page for the data.

For a better site!

Andrew said...

Exciting marathon, eh? It really puzzles me how so many contending runners seemed mentally glued to the pack. Ndebera looked so fresh at the finish that I feel she would've won gold had she started the chase 2-3K earlier.

Did you see the "smelling salts" or whatever it was that Dita was using? NBC's announcers couldn't figure it out and I was wondering if you could shed some light?

Unknown said...

In spite of NBC expert commentators raving about how the weather was "absolutely ideal", 72 degrees and 88% humidity is really hot for a marathon. Its nice for spectators but not so great for the runners.

suzee said...

Great report! I found myself rooting for Dita (her age certainly didn't hurt this middle aged runner from cheering) because she looked like she was just running a smarter race and taking reasonable risks, something the other runners weren't up to, for whatever reason.

So grateful that NBC showed almost the whole thing. I had thought maybe we'd get a half hour total.

Anonymous said...

Clearly the BBC commentary was more helpful. Steve Cram said a) that Dita often surged off the front in races but it never lasted, which was why no-one bothered to chase, and b) that Ndereba "liked her space" and so her position a bit off the back of the chasing pack was not necessarily something to worry about.

Though as it happened, Ndereba said she hadn't realised what the situation was with Dita, which is why she didn't get going earlier - a more forward position would have helped her on Sunday then!

Also heard Zhou had had injury problems this year, which explains why she at least didn't go chasing.

Bottom line though - Dita's bad luck before led directly to her good luck this time - no-one believed she was worth chasing and most of the pack who could have caught her (off the top of my head, Yamauchi has a 2:25 PB and NO problems this year) were worried about burning out.

It'll be interesting to see how tactics in future races are affected by this outstanding combination of "fortune favours the brave" and apparent indecision.

BTW I think it wasn't smelling salts but an energy gel, no? She was shovelling it down, clearly staggered that no-one was chasing her and she was still managing to keep going.

- middle ages mid packer